Center field: Invest in Israeli Arab education

The political dynamics within the Israeli Arab parties promote barn-burners rather than bridge-builders.

PEOPLE WATCH a screening of Arab Israeli film, ‘In Between’, at a cinema in Nazareth. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PEOPLE WATCH a screening of Arab Israeli film, ‘In Between’, at a cinema in Nazareth.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, my kids and I witnessed three Jerusalem mob scenes. Each disproved the hysterical, politicized warnings about rioting rejecting Trump’s Jerusalem recognition, and refuted the draw-your-conclusion- then-seek-convenient-quotes-as-props New York Times article “Jerusalem: It’s Tense, Crowded and Can Feel Like a Jail.”
On Sunday, a flock of Birthrighters sang and danced at Yemin Moshe, overlooking the Old City. On Friday, at the Mahaneh Yehuda market, a spontaneous mass jump-rope jump-off turned intense. And on Thursday, in the Old City, Christian Arabs jostled one another a bit to get free Christmas trees from the Jerusalem Municipality. Hmm. That’s some dangerous city and apartheid state.
As Israel toasts Lian Najami of Haifa, its first Arab Rhodes Scholar, who denounces boycotts as “unhelpful” and sees her award as proving that “nothing can stop” her fellow Arabs, let’s look beyond the polarizing headlines. Examining the status of Israeli Arabs yields two important messages – one undermining the Right, one contradicting the Left. First, Israeli Arabs are, as Israel’s Declaration of Independence affirms, Israeli citizens. Ultra-nationalists who deem them aliens violate Zionism’s core democratic ideals while making a huge practical mistake. And second, the delegitimizers who caricature Israel as oppressing Arabs are wrong.
Mohammad Darawshe, the director of planning, equality and shared society at the Givat Haviva Center, insightfully describes “two islands.” On one, Israeli Arabs flourish, building a modern middle class. On the second, other Israeli Arabs languish, risking the creation of an underclass.
When approaching the Israeli Arab question, the right thing to do is the shrewd thing to do: treating them equally is treating them intelligently. (Some prefer to be called Palestinian Israelis but “Israeli Arabs” distinguishes between Israel’s Arab citizens and those in the legal limbo of the territories).
Zionist idealists who want our democratic Jewish state to treat minorities in ways that few countries ever treated the Jews should demand equal investment in education, and creative programs to nurture Israeli Arab society and its middle class. At the same time, fanatic Zionists who wish to ignore Israel’s Arab citizenry should also demand equal investment in education, and creative programs to nurture Israeli Arab society and its middle class.
Think about it – as Darwashe does. The more Israel invests in Israeli Arab education, the more the first island of prosperity yielding productive taxpayers grows, while shrinking the second island spawning criminals, convicts and welfare recipients who drain social resources.
Similarly, those Israelis who want to encourage two solitudes, Quebec-style, separated culturally, geographically, existentially, should encourage more investment in Israeli Arab villages. When Israeli Arabs cannot build in their towns they move into Jewish towns. I don’t object, but many Jews – and Arabs – do.
Finally, as Israeli Arabs join the middle class, their birth rate drops. Many Israelis want to see an Israeli Arab middle class for the right reasons. Yet those who wish to control the community’s growth should also champion equality.
Darwashe has many useful policy recommendations to achieve these worthy goals. For example, understanding that you need to speak Hebrew to function on “Middle Class Island,” in 2014 Givat Haviva launched “Yihyeh B’seder,” a Hebrew enrichment program for Arab schools.
This year, the program hopes to teach 26,000 pupils with 53 teachers. For a mere $15 million annually, by 2022, 308 Jewish teachers could be teaching employment and academic Hebrew language, Israeli culture, and essential skills in all 176 Arab middle schools.
This analysis evokes a classic Zionist institution: the Ulpan. Israeli Arabs need Hebrew Ulpanim just as Israeli Jews need Arabic Ulpanim. Teaching literary Arabic or Hebrew is for language majors; teaching the colloquial language is for citizens who want to learn each other’s language and culture, working together to build this amazing country.
One of those delightfully annoying people who transcends partisan slogans, Darwashe reports that many ministries in this right-wing government, led by Naftali Bennett’s Education Ministry, “get it.”
Tragically, the political dynamics within the Israeli Arab parties promote barn-burners rather than bridge-builders like Darwashe. True, his all-but-Marxist materialist analysis sidesteps difficult identity questions by focusing on economic and social ones. But for years the Israeli Arab politicians have played the polarizing game of identity politics, delivering harsh punchlines instead of generous budget lines.
Darwashe’s two-island analysis is a great tool for modern democracies. Too many people today are black-and-white one-islanders. When assessing Israel, the US, the West, they quickly pronounce absolute guilt or innocence. In modern democracies, rich islands coexist beside poor islands; functional islands coexist beside dysfunctional islands; middle class islands coexist beside underclass islands; altruistic islands coexist besides cynical islands; islands of racial or ethnic or gender progress coexist beside islands of bigotry.
All-or-nothingers prefer to bash or defend society simplistically. Two-islanders acknowledge complexity – they can see, as we can see with Israeli Arabs, remarkable progress in just a few decades, a real national and communal commitment to progress, and happy talking points for any pro-Israel supporters. But they can also see where work remains to be done, and how the secrets of success from one island still need to spread to the neighboring island.
That multi-dimensional vision not only makes progress achievable, it makes all these problems less daunting. So let’s salute Mohammad Darwashe’s creativity, Lian Najami’s pioneering, and all their co-stars throughout Israel, not only for what they contribute to their community and their country but for imagining and embodying a constructive vision for progress that can inspire the entire world.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.